Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gaijin Debut = False Hope?

There are plenty of J-Pop fans on the other side of the ocean that dream big- so big, they hope not only to become successful singers, but to become successful singers in Japan. Unfortunately, the chances of realizing such dreams are one in a million… or are they?
Japan has long been labeled as a highly homogenous, almost exclusive society. In pop culture, Americans are often stereotypically depicted as brash and impolite. Furthermore, in everyday life, in case of crime or other offenses, foreigners are also more likely to be suspected of the crime than natives. In the Land of the rising Sun, diversity is scarce, and acceptance of it is even scarcer. However, interestingly, the celebrity scene on this island nation has been ridden with foreign super stars.

In recent years, many non-Japanese singers have rocketed to J-pop fame. True, J-pop’s international outreach started small: The oldest, and possibly the most enduring foreign supply of superstars in the Japanese music world comes not so far from home: many of South Korea’s budding talents have found themselves breaking new ground in Japan.

Younha's chart-topping Single, "Houki Boushi" (Comet)

One such gifted singer is South Korean Younha, perhaps one of the most well-known Korean singers amongst the J-pop crowd. After being rejected at several labels in her home country, she was finally signed to SONY when she sent a demo tape to Japan. Her first single, “Yubikiri”, was featured as an insert song in a drama, but it was her second single, “Houki Boushi”, or “Comet”, that earned her the nickname “The Oricon Comet”, alluding to her rapid rise in the Japanese music sales charts with this release.

However, after her initial success, sales began to peter down, and from 2006-2008, Younha saw her Japanese career with SONY die a slow and painful death with a string of floppy singles. Luckily, Korea awaited her with open arms when she returned to native soil, and she now enjoys great success in her home country.

Alan's 1st #1 Single on the Oricon Charts, Kuon no Kawa

In the past two years however, Japan has broached brave new territory by allowing several Chinese singers into the limelight. Case in point: For Hello! Project fans, 2008 saw the addition of two Chinese members, Junjun and Linlin, to the flagship group Morning Musume. However, one of the highest profiles in J-Pop saw its album debut in 2009, when Avex launched Tibetan-born singer Alan on the path to super-stardom. With her unique Tibetan wailing coupled with beautifully orchestrated, grandiose songs, Alan has slowly but surely climbed to the top of the Oricon Charts, receiving what many call the “Ayu treatment” from her label. Indeed, Alan’s growing success and rapid-fire releases seem to spell special attention from her label:

A Japanese news program reports on HIMEKA's eccentric beginnings, showing footage of her live promotion event for her debut single, "Asu e no Kizuna"
However, although Asian stars have received warm (if slightly short-lived) welcomes in Japan, it came as a shock when Western singers also broke into the market. When French Canadian Catherine St-Onge, a self-proclaimed Japanophile and anime-fanatic won the Anisong Kouhaku (think American Idol meets Anime lovers) and landed herself a record deal, the J-Pop singer wannabe in all of us was anxiously and excitedly cheering her on. We watched her struggle inarticulately and adorably through Japanese interviews at talk shows, watched her lanky, pale frame bob awkwardly next to petite Japanese hosts and wondered if she would ever truly fit her Japanese pseudonym, HIMEKA. Her debut single saw mixed reactions from the international community, as she began her career with a rather generic, but “pretty enough” opening song for the anime series Valkyeries Chronicles. Then, before her next single was to be released, rumors quickly circulated around the web about her difficult life in Japan, as she continued to struggle financially despite her debut, working part time and still seemingly unable to pierce the language barrier. Her second single however, was much better received than the first, sporting a more “epic” sound than her debut. It’s clear that this girl has the vocal chops, but does she have the PR skills to present herself appealingly to the Japanese public?

Now, so far, we have discussed the rise of the talented in the ranks of the Japanese industry. However, keep in mind that this is the age of Youtube, and anyone is a star, talent or no talent. Even HIMEKA herself first made a name for herself singing covers of anime songs on Youtube. However, the rise of the latest and perhaps youngest western star in Japan proves that it is the gimmick, and not the talent, that earns popularity.
Beckii "Cruelly" tortures us by butchering what remains of the Japanese phrases in her sorry excuse for a debut single, "Danjo". I blame her managers.
That’s right, I haven’t forgotten about the most recent blip in the J-pop radar. Self-dubbed “Beckii Cruel”, this UK tween started out posting dance cover videos of J-pop songs on Youtube. As her cute image and weeaboo behavior (speaking in Japanese and English in her videos) gained increasing attention in Japan, she caught the attention of talent agencies, and before you know it, she’s landed herself her own solo DVD and has also released (a horrendous excuse for) a debut single, in which she talk-sings her way through a tuneless “song”. Oddly, she sounds better speaking Japanese in her amateur videos than she does in this official one. Did her promoters want to accentuate the fact that she’s about as western as it gets? Beckii has also been widely visible in CMs and fashion shows.
It is hard to believe, but we have a young Wapanese “Idol”s career taking off right before our eyes. Grounds that were once completely Japanese- or at least, Asian- occupied by the ranks of H!P and other girl groups, are now being infiltrated by the West. And unfortunately, this “idol” doesn’t even have an ounce of the professionalism and trace of actual talent that we have come to expect from our idols. True, she is only fourteen. True, she can bop to a couple of songs. But I have the nagging feeling that once her Wapanese gimmick gets old, she will fade away.
Which leads me to question the validity of a trend I’ve seen with many foreign artists- their initial success, only to be followed by a steady decline after the “freshness” of their appearance has worn off on the public. We’ve seen it with Korean artists, and we’re right in the midst of it with artists such as Alan, HIMEKA, and Beckii. Hopefully, this new batch of artists prove my theory wrong (except for Beckii. Sorry, dear, but you can go back to your internet, non-profit dancing-in-your-room gig.) Is this newfound influx of foreign stars a sign of increasing acceptance or is the public simply observing the alien specimen for their exoticness before tossing each talent aside like a rag squeezed dry?


  1. Thanks for your visit to my blog. Do you care to exchange links? I'd be honored to list you as an affiliate.

    I was very interested by your post. There are a lot of foreign artists coming from all over to get fame in Japan, and Beckii is just the icing on the cake! Then you get stars like BoA who is currently in an attempt to rule the musical world.


  2. Sure, I would be happy to exchange links :)
    Haha, more established acts like BoA seem like they're from another era to me (from early 2000s...) when foreign artists were pretty rare. The real wave of foreign artists have been coming since '05-06 and ESPECIALLY within the last two years. Or maybe that's just because that's when I really started paying attention to J-Pop lol XDD

  3. Ohhhh, and I forgot to mention Monkey Majik too! Aren't they Canadian?

  4. yeah, they are, I think *looks up on Wiki*... half Canadian and half Japanese XD

  5. Good article. Leah Dizon is also a good example.

  6. thank you~ you're right, Leah Dizon is an excellent example.


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